Vost knew he had them hooked. "We make contact," he continued. "Show them what we can do, and then offer our services. We take the best offer. We can always change our minds if we want to.
"But we have to be careful. Takuda and the rest of DEST team may not like our little plan. We'll have to convince him that we're doing it his way. Make him think it's all his idea. We have to get the 'Mechs out of that DropShip, and we can't do it as long as he's got a guard there."
"We have slug pistols," said Collis Brank, looking up at Vost. "We could just do a job on them."
"Not a good plan, Brank. Have you ever seen what a laser rifle can do to an unarmored human body? No. We have to do it slowly. Just wait until we get those 'Mechs out of the ship, and then we'll see who's boss."
Vost looked up at the first stars beginning to appear in the darkening sky. "By the eyes of the dragon, this will be an adventure our children and grandchildren will sing about!"
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Roaring gusts of wind swept across the open landing area of Salford Station, carrying dense clouds of talcum-fine grit that attacked the troops, DropShips, and vehicles gathered at the spaceport. The grit drove under the wristbands and neck rings of the troopers' uniforms, mixing with perspiration to form a slurry that scoured away layers of flesh. The only way to avoid the blasting grit was to turn away; the only way to avoid the constant abrasion was to remain motionless. Because it was beneath the dignity of a battalion commander of the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery to turn away from clouds of grit, Chu-sa Tokashio Hamata chose the second alternative.
It was not so for the other members of the battalion staff, however. Seeing them crouched beside a landing pad, their hoods pulled tight against the blasts, Hamata was sure that they were also watching him for the slightest sign of weakness. A samurai did not flinch from an armed enemy, much less an attack by mere dust. Neither did a battalion commander. Neither did a graduate of the Sun Zhang MechWarrior Academy. And Tokashio Hamata was all three of these. Facing into the approaching cone of dust, his only acknowledgment was the slightest squinting of his eyes.
The cloud passed over the landing pad, where the DropShips awaited boarding by the members of the 2452nd Battalion, Fifth Galedon Regulars. Along with its sister battalion, the 2452nd was loading for transshipment to Brailsford, a world only one jump away. Because of the so-called McAllister Rebellion, the Combine's military commanders had been taking the precaution of pulling troops away from the distant edge of Combine space. Hamata had known about the change for six months, ever since he'd first gotten wind of the orders in June of that year. Supporting the two combat battalions were a Heavy Engineer Battalion, the 262nd, and a combat medical support battalion.
Tokashio Hamata was not happy with the situation. His battalion's DropShips, all of them Vulture Class, were not being combat-loaded. The ships assigned to his unit were too big to take only a single company and too small to carry two. As a result, he'd had to break some of the companies up among the DropShips. They would all be under his command once they linked with the Raiden, the Leviathan Class JumpShip that would transport them across the stars, but they would be separated and scrambled during the transits to and from the JumpShip awaiting them in deep space. Deployment onto Brailsford would be equally confused. Hamata dreaded the thought of administrative movement. It always made the troops slip a bit.
Even though he'd been assured that Brailsford was a secure planet, there was always the nagging doubt. Having raised and trained the 2452nd himself, Hamata wanted to be able to hit his landing zone combat-ready. These troops were his children. He didn't want to see anything happen to them.
Another gust of wind scoured the landing area and Hamata squinted against it. The loading ramp trembled under his feet as a Chi-Ha armored personnel carrier ground its way slowly up the incline. The ramps, Hamata noted, were of the older style and not quite wide enough to take the new family of equipment. The driver was keeping the twenty-two-ton vehicle carefully centered on the yellow line painted down the middle of the ramp.
When Hamata noticed that the driver was a woman, his jaw tightened involuntarily. He understood that females of the Draconis Combine were not barred from any profession. He understood that the Combine needed every human resource at its disposal. But that didn't alter the fact that he preferred to have only men in his unit.
By careful manipulation of the personnel records he had managed to keep his fighting units almost pure. It was true that the support and administrative units included more women, but that couldn't be helped. There were even women in the headquarters as officers. As a samurai of ancient lineage, however, Hamata never felt comfortable seeing a woman carrying the dai-sho. It was an attitude that extended back in time more than a thousand years, so deeply ingrained in his psyche that he would probably never be able to overcome it. But enough of that, he told himself. It was the loading operation that demanded all his attention at the moment. As he dismissed the thoughts from his mind, another Chi-Ha A PC rumbled past.
Down the line of Vultures, Hamata could see the last of his vehicles grinding through the gaping cargo doors in the ship fuselages. These were not the biggest DropShips available, yet even they dwarfed the battalion's armored vehicles. Hamata grimaced again. He was being forced, by orders, to leave, most of his combat equipment behind. Those orders had informed him that he would receive pre-placed equipment once they reached Brailsford. He was authorized to carry only ten percent of his vehicles with him; the others he must leave on Salford for the replacement battalion, a group of green conscripts who would take his place in the garrison. Hamata had commandeered the newest vehicles, regardless of their tactical value. He wasn't going to leave his best equipment to draftees.
There were rumors and reports from within the Combine military about the new breed of weapon coming off the assembly lines. He'd seen pictures of these walking monsters, and he doubted whether any mechanized infantry battalion could ever hope to oppose them. Just one of the giants carried more long- and short-range fire power than his entire unit could deploy. Those monster machines would surely change the face of war, and Hamata wondered if he were young enough to make the change.
As the cargo doors swung shut all along the line, the loadmasters stepped onto the ramps and flashed the Clear signal to the control tower. Green lights winked on above the personnel access ports: time to load the last of the troops. Hamata turned toward the clump of staff officers, smiling inwardly to see the clump suddenly shatter like a group of chickens startled by a predator. Though he knew they'd been huddled behind the ramp for the past hour trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, his officers immediately began to behave as though they had many important mings to do. It was, of course, a charade. The battalion's officers were, for the moment, irrelevant. The civilian crews of the DropShips were in charge of loading and storage, and the troops and equipment would be stowed where they wanted, regardless of anything the battalion staff said. It gave both commander and his staff a feeling of helplessness, but no one could do anything about it. When the Draconis Combine said that this was how it was to be, then so it was. There was no appeal.
Hamata herded the staff together and prodded them onto the DropShip Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The Toyotomi held the bulk of Headquarters and Headquarters Company for the 2452nd Battalion. As he too stepped through the, personnel door, Hamata was amazed by the size of the ship's interior. The Vulture Class ships were nothing more than huge caverns with tie-down points for the heavy equipment. Between the tie-downs were tiers of pipe-rack bunks standing vertically against the outer hull.
This ship had obviously been designed to move the maximum amount of people and equipment from one point to another. The quarters were spartan, but the adjutant had made sure the staff got the best of what was available. Hamata had the good fortune to get a single room; all the others had to share with at least one other member of the battalion.
At the moment the loudspeakers in the immense bay were spewing forth a series of commands and information, but the words were lost in the continual echo. Whoever had designed the communications system must not have paid any attention to the acoustics of the place. Hamata wasn't worried about it, though. He'd heard it all before and knew the announcement was an alert to takeoff. He signaled those around him to find seats and buckle in. Takeoff would be abrupt, and any thing or person not secured would end up plastered against the after bulkhead or skewered on some sharp object. The staff scampered to their stations.
Hamata moved to his stateroom, climbing up a broad shaft to the upper decks. He activated the sliding door to his compartment, walked across to the bunk, and lay down. He snapped the restraining straps across his chest and thighs and waited for the blast of acceleration that would hurl the DropShip off the planet's surface and toward the JumpShip that waited fourteen days away in deep space.
The launch was just as Hamata expected. The Hideyoshi Toyotomi exploded off the ground under full power, me force of the liftoff pressing passengers down into their bunks and peeling lips back from teeth. It was a notable experience.
Less man an hour later the gravity had dropped to a constant point-nine gees, making it possible to move around the ship. Then had come a twenty-minute transition period of zero gravity while the DropShip crew computed the final vectors for marrying up with the JumpShip Raiden.
Hamata kept the restraining straps in place until the green gravitational light came on for the second time. Having previously experienced the sensation of weightlessness, he felt no great desire to do so again. But some members of his staff, especially the younger ones, eagerly released themselves and floated through the cargo bay, creating the normal number of accidents as some inexperienced floater came into sudden contact with an immovable pipe frame. The only person Hamata needed to consult was the battalion priest to learn the outcome of the omens for the trip. When those came back as "uneventful," there was nothing more to do.
The DropShip began to accelerate, establishing artificial gravity. Hamata waited until the green gravitational light showed that point-seven gees had been achieved within the cargo bay, then hit the quick release on his harness. He gently pried himself from the bed, letting his body and his mind adjust to the reduced gravitational force and the change in orientation.
As the omens had predicted, the trip was uneventful. The first seven days went peacefully by. Now that they were halfway to the JumpShip, there was another transitional period as the Toyotomi rotated to approach the star-ship stern first. The second half of the transit would be spent in deceleration, allowing the same point-seven gees of negative thrust to slow the Toyotomi as it neared the Raiden. By the time the Toyotomi and the rest of the DropShip fleet reached the orbiting JumpShip, their velocity would have been reduced to no more than three kilometers per hour. The closing speed would be less than that of a walking man, making the ships easy pickings for the grappling arms sprung like grotesque appendages from the bow and stern of the JumpShip.
Another seven days passed without incident, bringing the DropShips to the Leviathan Class JumpShip. Like piglets maneuvering for a teat, they nuzzled toward their mother ship for security and sustenance. One by one the DropShips came alongside and attached themselves to the spine of the Raiden. Hamata, still strapped in his chair, noted the gentle thump as the JumpShip's docking ports captured his and the other ships. That the DropShip pilots were experienced was obvious; Hamata had been through much more violent dockings in his day.
Hamata would have very little time between the DropShip's docking and the jump to Brailsford; just enough for a quick inspection of the carriers as they locked on and possibly also for a brief meeting with the JumpShip commander. He had never met Wilson Hartwell, Master and Commander of the Raiden, but like any other commanding, officer in the Draconis Combine, the man was sure to be highly professional.
* * *
Six billion years, more or less, before Chu-sa Tokashio Hamata loaded his battalion onto the DropShips and began his voyage to Brailsford, the universe had been born in a cataclysmic explosion. Since that time it had continued to expand at enormous speed. Man, a resident of the universe for only a very short period, had studied and hypothesized about how all this had happened and what it all meant. Men had made laws and rules that attempted to explain the event, and then had become convinced and complacent about what they had written. Everyone then assumed that because the theories had been stated and written, they must be true. Space was thought to be rational and reasonable. Of course, some cherished theories about speed were demolished when the speed of light was first detected in the last half of the twentieth century, but once destroyed and re-cast, the theories became laws again. There was no one, certainly no one in the scientific community of the Draconis Combine, who would question them.
One of the laws dealt with the theory of jump points. Once the zenith and nadir jump points had been mapped and declared safe, the entire scientific community agreed with the theory and went on to other matters. A slightly myopic but completely human attitude.
But the immense forces that ripped apart the original particle of cosmic matter were unaware of the requirements and laws established by humans. Time, space, and mass changed and grew. All three parameters were in flux, and at great speeds. Compared to human existence, however, those changes were incredibly slow. The one hundred thousand years since homo sapiens first emerged from the mists was a mere instant compared to the six billion years of the universe. The universe was, in fact, a fractured element, and the rifts and joints between the moving plates drifted across what humans called "empty" space. One of those cosmic rifts was now drifting through the Salford jump point. Anything encountering the rift would be hurled across great distances as though it were in a sixth dimension. If the object were very lucky, it would survive to find itself lost in an unknown place. Or perhaps if it were unlucky enough to survive, it would find itself in that unknown place. For once there, there would be no way for the voyagers to return.
* * *
On the bridge of the Raiden, Master and Commander: Wilson Hartwell watched the console as the JumpShip approached its exit point. Once transition occurred there would be no navigational work. All the plotting had been done while the ship hung near their jump point in the Salford system. It was like opening a door and stepping through. You passed from one room to the other, even though the rooms might be thirty light years apart. It was just that simple. The computer did all the navigating and plotting long before jump took place. As long as the jump point was correctly plotted, there was nothing to do but wait. The numbers on the console scrolled downward, rapidly approaching the time-distance mark. Then the console registered zero, and the Draconis Combine JumpShip Raiden shuddered slightly as it dissolved into the no man's land known as hyperspace.
The jump through hyperspace was like opening a door to another room; step through and there you are. Even if the trip takes you thirty light years away, it's as easy as that. The transition is only a few seconds long, but the human mind is almost incapable of understanding the process or appreciating the time. Hartwell had been through the door so many times that he responded differently to the sensation than did those who didn't do it for a living. He braced himself against his command chair and stared at the navigational compusystem console. The screen showed a digital, three-dimensional polar coordinate system of their location. Sol, the star around which Terra revolved, was considered the center of the universe, for the chart makers had had to start somewhere. They had used the plane described by the orbit of Terra as level, with Terran north being "up" and south being "down." After that it was easy. A vector and a positive or negative number was all that was needed to determine a location in space.
With NAVSTAR coordinates and mapping, it was possible to get an accurate reading to within the nearest meter. Not that a JumpShip needed such accuracy. Once a jump was authorized, the coordinates of the final destination were plugged into the computer. The last digits would determine the jumping ship's exact exit point.
To make the jump, the ship began at a designated point in the gravity well of the system, a point where all forces from the planets and the central star were reduced to absolute zero. With the coordinates of the next point already plotted, the ship rotated until the navigational heading was correct. The transitional authorization code was called up from the computer's memory. The JumpShip's Kearny-Fuchida drive sent a burst of energy plasma from the titanium-germanium alloy in its liquid helium bath to the field initiator. The energy produced the hyperspace field that was further amplified by the K-F drive itself. Like opening a door and stepping through into another room.
Hartwell watched the digital display of current/future location. The door opened, the ship stepped through. Then there was a sharp jolt as the threshold was crossed. There wasn't supposed to be a jolt, but it did happen occasionally that something in the doorway could cause an accident. Unfortunately, JumpShips had limited meteoric shielding to protect them from such an event.
The shudder increased. Hartwell grasped the arms of the command chair to keep from being hurled across the bridge. The navigation officer was not so lucky. He'd been lounging at his station, one leg thrown over the arm of his chair. He'd disregarded the first shudder with veteran aplomb; the second one caught his attention. With the Raiden's bridge at zero gravity, there was nothing to drop into for support.
The navigator scrambled for his seat, but the forces were too great and too sudden. Hartwell saw a look of surprise and then fear flash across the navigator's face as the man's body hurled past the command chair. The navigator opened his mouth to scream, but whether it was in fear or a call for help, no one would ever know. Before he could draw a bream into his lungs, the man's body had struck the environmental control console and literally come apart on impact. The upper torso was ripped from the hip girdle and continued to spin away toward the cargo access doors. The legs lodged between the life support and internal security panels.
The environmental specialist, Fourth Officer Maria Savoyard, had just stepped through the access port from her quarters when the second jolt wrenched the Raiden. Not a seasoned veteran of jumps, she'd taken the first shudder as only a warning. It had not completely prepared her for the second event, but she was much better off than the wise and experienced navigator. By wrapping both arms around the emergency operation and override wheel next to the door, she kept herself from flying completely across the starship's wide bridge. It also saved her in another way.
By tripping the emergency override system, she froze the door in the open position. Had she not done so, the airtight door would have slid shut, just as all other doors and ports were doing on the Raiden. With thousands of kilograms per square centimeter behind the doors, there was nothing—certainly nothing human—that could have prevented complete closure. She hung on, gasping for breath.
Hartwell had no time to mourn the death of the navigator or to worry about the fate of the environmental specialist. While his body fought the violent bucking of his ship, his mind tried to make sense of what was happening. The master console by his command chair was going wild. The engineering lights that monitored the major functions of the power system flashed a phalanx of emergency red. The navigational and polar coordinate readouts were going crazy. Vector numbers flashed across the screen: 2753 ... 9829 ... 0080 ... 1513. They came so fast and were so divergent that he couldn't comprehend them. The range reader flashed 0000000.0000000, and then went wild as it climbed to 9999999.9999999. The vector plot showed the same number: 9999999.9999999.
Hartwell felt his stomach churn and his mouth go dry. The Raiden was nowhere that was real.
Then the violence stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
Except for the panting, labored breathing of Savoyard, still wrapped around the emergency wheel, the bridge was silent. The forward viewscreen began to clear, showing myriad stars against the black void of space. The cameras swept across the emptiness, programmed to find and lock on to the nearest star system. The search had begun.
Hartwell called up a report from engineering and got the bad news all at once. The helium containment vessel for the K-F system showed major damage; helium was leaking into the access passageways. Worse still was news from the fusion power core. The containment bottle for the nuclear reactor was also damaged. The JumpShip Raiden was not in good shape.
The rest of the command crew slid into the weightless-ness of the bridge, floating in, pushing off from the access shafts to drift across to their stations. Hartwell, meanwhile, turned to the comunication consoles and began to deal with the hysterical DropShip captains.
Like everything else not weighted down the hips and trunk of the unfortunate navigator began to float as well, drawn by the eddies and currents created by the movements of the passing command staff. A yeoman quietly corralled the pieces and herded them into a solid-waste disposal chute. Savoyard tentatively released her grip on the door control and moved toward her chair. Hartwell silently pointed her to the navigation station; her regular place at environmental control still showed the stains of the unfortunate navigator.
The Raiden would never make another jump; that much was obvious to Hartwell. Both the K-F drive power system and the fusion core had been damaged and were leaking containment. In addition, the surge of energy that had been part of the force that had thrown the ship off course had burned out most of the control and communications systems. The pulse continued to attack modules within the ship. The self-diagnostic and automated repair procedures carried the surge with them as they probed the vessel. Each time the crew checked or attempted to repair, the pulse was there to disrupt and destroy. The loss of the internal gyrostabilizers was the final blow.
Shortly after exiting from jump, Hartwell made the decision to abandon the Raiden. The only question was how long the ship would remain habitable, and that was dependent on its structural integrity. Hartwell could have extended the Raiden's life by casting off the DropShips, but that would have been unconscionable. There was no place for the DropShips to go, at least no place known to be as safe. For a while at least, the JumpShip still had the sensors to locate a planet in whatever system they'd hit, a planet where the humans now huddled in varying levels of panic in their carriers might find haven.
The hyperspace transition had also played havoc with the electronics of most of the DropShips. Many would be unable to navigate the necessary interstellar distances to a safe haven, they would have to be ferried close to a planet before they could be cast off.
This became Hartwell's mission. Find a planet and get the Raiden as close as possible, transfer his crew to one of the attached ships or the Raiden's small lifeboat, and cast off for their new home.
The third day after exiting from jump, the scanner had positively identified two habitable locations. One was a large planet and the other a huge moon. Hartwell chose the planet, but he kept a solid reference on the moon as an alternative. Day six of the transit toward the planet was Hartwell's target. If the Raiden could make it that long, the DropShips would have a good chance of navigating the rest of the distance. Events, however, conspired against the Raiden, her passengers, and her crew.
Late on day five, the JumpShip's fusion core reached critical, and they had to scram the plant. It was a simple process of merely venting the whole core clear of the hull. This reduced all power within the ship to emergency cells only. There were enough of those to maintain life support and command function for a period of fourteen days, but many had been damaged during the misjump.
Crew members crawling through the access passages detected structural failings. Two of the techs entered crawl space 23B/886 and never came out the other end. A life-sense scan detected no heartbeats or respiration within the passage, and the climate of the tube was indicated as a toxic environment. Both ends of the compartment were sealed shut and bonded.
Another structural failure was detected on the JumpShip's spine. The flaw was working its way down the skin of the ship, rupturing the access passage that connected the docking collars. No crew movement was possible between the DropShips unless the individual making the move was in complete life gear.
Then the life support, structural integrity, and engineering panels on the bndge flashed red, every panic light coming on. Indeed, the rosy hue from so much red light gave the bridge the almost cozy look of light from a campfire. But those who knew what was happening didn't find the effect either cozy or comforting. Instead, the bridge crew took the precaution of donning their life support gear. The Raiden lurched violently, spilling people and equipment throughout the DropShips. More emergency lights blinked on but never blinked off. The spinal rupture raced down the surface of the ship. Hartwell hit the emergency evacuation signal.
The emergency signal shrilled down the long, now-vacant corridor. Doors that had not been secured hissed shut. The preprogrammed un-docking procedures went into effect. DropShips were cast off whether they were ready to depart or not. Within minutes the bridge was clear. Hartwell was the last to leave, then he thrust himself down the passage toward his lifeboat station. As he pushed in, he made a quick count of the other people inside. They were a crowd of huddled figures swathed in life suits, their masks closed down and locked. The door snapped shut followed by a sibilant hiss as the lifeboat pressurized, and then the docking collar released. The thrusting jets pushed the boat clear of the tumbling ship.
Hartwell watched out the side vision port as the boat got clear. The Vulture DropShips were also breaking free. Most of them were safe, but one had become caught by its own collar, which had become twisted out of shape by the spinal rupture. The ship was firing its main thrusters in a desperate attempt to break clear, but to no avail. The blast of the jets only drove the ship deeper and deeper into the collar, wrenching the oculus into a useless wreck. The DropShip would never get free. Hartwell saw the DropShip's frantic thrashing become more and more violent, a snared animal trying to break clear of the trap. The force was too much for the skin of the ship. Hartwell saw the first rupture in the fuselage. Tiny at first, it suddenly split down the wing root from the; trailing edge all the way to the cargo door. A cloud of moisture blasted from the hull, instantaneously freezing in the void. Bodies spewed out as well.
The DropShips began to drop away, headed toward the surface of the planet. The onboard computers had been given the coordinates of the surface, and they would head for that point even without control by the human crew. The computers might not pick out the best landing zone, but they would get the ship down. Four of the ships were clumped together. They would land close enough to be able to support one another on the ground. The other ships fanned out, the side of one of the fleeing Vultures brushing the hull of another. Locked together and out of control, they tumbled downward. Hartwell watched them go and hoped that both crews were dead. A two-day fall, with no chance of survival, was more than he cared to even contemplate.
The space around the Raiden cleared of the departing ships. Watching from his lifeboat, the Master and Commander held his position near his vessel until he saw no further signs of movement. Then he was startled to see the sail used to collect solar energy to fuel the JumpShip's K-F drive suddenly deployed. Some impulse in the dying computer had decided that it was time to start re-charging the drive. The great sail would mark the ship for eternity. Some latent surge in the pulse had burned off all the absorptive material, and the fabric shone white. Then Hartwell turned his lifeboat and followed the DropShips and the rest of the lifeboats in their unforeseen journey toward the blue orb waiting in the distance.